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Ilhan Omar has always been a fighter, and not just in the rhetorical sense. Kate O’Neil reviews the autobiography of the progressive Somali-American representative

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Ilhan Omar, This Is What America Looks Like (Hurst 2020), 320pp.

In her recently released autobiography, This is what America Looks Like, we learn that the US’s first hijab-wearing congresswoman, perhaps best known today for boldly facing down Donald Trump’s racist remarks against her and fellow ‘squad’ members last year, developed an early reputation as a brawler of bullies at her primary school in Somalia.

The book begins with a story of her at the age of seven telling a much bigger boy in her class to ‘sit and shut up’ when she heard him harassing a fellow pupil. And when the harrier threatened her with physical retaliation, it was Ilhan who invited him to rumble in the courtyard after school. While the child she was defending ran home scared, Ilhan stayed on to administer justice by ‘pulling down’ the bully and ‘rubbing his face in the sand’ (p.8).

She explains her unusual feistiness thus:

‘I was a particularly small child, so anyone who didn’t know me assumed I was a coward. The runt who always got bullied at school. But I wasn’t afraid of fighting. I felt like I was bigger and stronger than everyone else - even if I knew this wasn’t the case’ (p.7).

Omar’s past scrappiness will probably come as a surprise to readers who are only familiar with the very warm and poised, albeit forthright, manner of the left-wing legislator today. However, this anecdote is a fitting starting point for understanding a figure whose life has been defined by resilience in the face of adversity and a drive to stand up for social equality. As she counselled her cowardly classmate, ‘If you don’t want them messing with you every day, you’ve got to stand up for yourself.’

A challenging start

Tragic loss began early on in Omar’s life. Although born into a loving and relatively well-off family in Mogadishu, her mother died shortly after her birth, and she was raised by her father, grandfather and a close aunt. In 1989, when she was just eight years old, civil war broke out in Somalia, and after months of dodging bullets, bombs and raids, the family was eventually able to flee to a UN refugee camp in Kenya. During their three-year stay there, Omar lived under constant threat of fire, disease and starvation and witnessed the death of the aunt who had served as her mother figure.

In 1995, the family was finally granted asylum status in the United States. Although death no longer stalked them, Omar faced new challenges as an immigrant teenager. She spoke only a few words of English on her first day of middle school in Arlington, Virginia, and struggled for a long time with loneliness, bullying and trying to fit in. As a young adult in Minneapolis, Minnesota, her embrace of certain aspects of American lifestyle, like wearing revealing clothing and kissing boys, conflicted with traditional Somali Muslim values, and she was heavily criticised by male elders in the community.

Yet, whenever confronted with a challenge, she remained true to her own convictions and charted a brave course. She married twice and divorced each time the relationship did not work out. In 2009, as a single mother, she moved with her two children to Fargo, North Dakota to pursue a university degree while looking after them all on her own. At varying moments in her life, she displayed her hair, shaved her head, and decided to wear the hijab. Her conscientious and independent spirit is captured in the reasoning she gives for finally adopting the headscarf:

‘The practice of wearing the hijab … seemed like the epitome of an external religious practice. It’s why I had always struggled with it … I resented the fact that I had to cover myself for others. But [later] I saw the hijab in a different context. It was no longer about what I’m supposed to be for them but what it does for me’ (p.118).

The unusual courage and innovation Omar has shown in the context of considerable personal hardship is impressive in its own right. However, what is most inspiring about her story is her ability to harness these strengths to fight for justice in the political realm. ‘It’s my belief that in public service if you aren’t making someone uncomfortable,’ she writes, ‘you aren’t doing your job’ (p.178).

Entering politics

Her first foray into state politics was in 2014 as a campaigner for Mohammed Noor, who was contesting a Democratic establishment backed incumbent, Phyllis Kahn, to be the first Somali to hold his district’s seat in the Minnesota state legislature. Fearing change, party machine thugs issued Omar and other Noor supporters with veiled threats of violence if they attended the Democratic Party caucus that year.

Rather than feel intimidated, Omar attended the event, where she was beaten so badly about the head, she suffered a concussion. She then used the incident to expose political corruption; circulating a photo of her battered face on social media and writing an op-ed for the local newspaper, in which she called herself an ‘unapologetic progressive’ and denounced those who wish to ‘put her in her place’ as a woman (p.183).

Two years later, Omar ran against both Kahn and Noor for the same seat, facing prejudice from right-wing groups, who concocted conspiracy theories linking her to Islamic terrorism, and elders in the Somali community, who waged a sexist and sectarian smear campaign against her. But, here too, she never backed down and won the election.

Such bold moves have marked her political career ever since. From inviting President Trump ‘to tea’ to ‘educate him’ on the problems with the Muslim travel ban in 2017, to telling hijab-ophobes on Twitter after her 2018 election to the US House that ‘the floor of Congress is going to look like America … And you’re gonna just have to deal’ (p.255).

Her astounding confidence even prompted a conservative Minnesota legislator to assert that she ‘walked in’ to a room ‘like a white man.’ However, Omar does not view her ‘iron spine’ as merely a fortunate personality trait. She sees it as a product of her hope and struggle for a better world:

‘My brand of optimism is based on my denying myself any sense of victimization and taking comfort in the fact that whatever difficulties exist today, they will not exist tomorrow. I believe that by pushing hard enough, you will eventually end up someplace better’ (p.235).

Building solidarity

Just as inspiring as her personal resilience is the political popularity she has been able to maintain despite constant smears and attacks. She attributes this largely to her hands-on style of organising and a firm belief that ‘government representatives must be fluent in the day-to-day struggles of those they serve.’

She first discovered this while working as a nutritional educator in Minneapolis as a young woman:

‘Here I was telling immigrants the properties of vitamins found in fresh strawberries; meanwhile, they had no way of getting anything close to a fresh strawberry. Or how about the young high school moms whom I had been instructed to counsel on calcium intake. They couldn’t concentrate on my powder demonstration because they were too worried about catching the bus with their babies’ (p.265).

In this vein, many instructive pages of the book are devoted to how she won elections through endless door knocking and sit-down conversations with people from a wide variety of backgrounds to understand their concerns.

For Omar, representing a constituency is not just about keeping various elements of her electorate happy by speaking to ‘their issues.’ Also critical to her approach is fostering empathy among diverse groups and helping them to see their interconnectedness:

‘We don’t have to be hungry or gay or black or anything else to understand the needs and wants of those who are. We just need to have conversations with one another to know that every policy is personal because at some point, if you widen the circle out far enough, it will touch you’ (p.266).

The book includes an interesting example of this approach. As a young community activist in 2012, she helped to block a law banning same-sex marriage in Minnesota by developing a message of solidarity that could win support among Somali Muslims, who tend to hold conservative views on LGBT issues. ‘If they come for one community, such as same-sex couples,’ the campaign argued, ‘who’s to say they won’t come for another community like yours in the future?’ (p.165).

This is what America Looks Like is well worth a read, both for the understanding it provides of an influential and exceptional figure in Washington today and for the hope it instils of moving US politics in a progressive direction. It must be stated, however, that the book reveals some limitations in Omar’s politics that are in the present moment just as critical to recognise.

Relationship with the Democrats

Omar traces her political awakening to the day she arrived in the United States and observed the contradiction between the idyllic images of America she had seen in promotional videos at her refugee camp in Kenya and the trash filled streets of New York City. ‘To me it meant we had arrived in the wrong America,’ she explains:

‘We were eventually going to get to our America, though, the one that matched the image in my head. That is still what it means to me today, and I’m still on the journey to find our America’ (p.261).

What she means by this is clarified in the book’s conclusion:

‘Although we’re nowhere near it, the work toward a more perfect union was enshrined in our Constitution at the founding of this country … What is missing in the conversation about our national identity is that there exists an elitist system belying the vision of ourselves as rugged individualists … The anger is misplaced on individuals. It should be directed at the way society is set up’ (p.272).

The analogy is touching, and it is refreshing to hear an American elected official talk about system change and elitism. However, her call for ‘a more perfect union’ through a moral appeal to the general population places her squarely in a liberal reformist, rather than a ‘class struggle’ socialist camp. This comes as no surprise, as her entire political experience bears this out. She joined the Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party (a regional grouping of the Democrats) very early on in her career, and all the organising mentioned in the book is of an electoral nature.

What did seem amiss in the narrative was the absence of any criticism of the Democratic Party leadership. While it is clear Omar has always stood on the side of progressive forces running against disconnected, corrupt or machine-backed politicians, there is no analysis of the problems within the party or efforts to reform it.

There is also no mention of Omar’s vociferous support for Palestinian rights and the rifts it has caused between her and party leaders. Nancy Pelosi, who is a stalwart supporter of Israel and has openly condemned Omar’s critique of US-Israel relations, is referred to only positively, as ‘someone I admire greatly’ (p.211). More is said in the book about working with Washington party insiders than prominent social-democratic progressives like Bernie Sanders, Rashida Tlaib or Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Shockingly, even Margaret Thatcher receives a few paragraphs of praise, despite her political differences, due to the ‘fearless and internal sense of equality’ Omar believes she embodied as the first female prime minister of the UK (p.260).

This is not to diminish the political integrity of Omar or the transformative impact she has had on American politics since first coming into the national spotlight as a gutsy opponent of Trump in 2017. When she entered the US House of Representatives in 2019, in addition to being the first woman to wear a hijab in Congress, she was also one of the first two Muslim women (along with Rashida Tlaib), and the first Somali-American. The US Congress now has the highest number of female legislators and female legislators of colour in its history, and more women of colour are running for Congress and state legislatures in the current election than ever before.

Omar has surely helped pave the way for this. Not only has she faced down incessant racist and sexist attacks with bravery, she has also stuck to her progressive principles legislatively. Last summer, for example, she was only one of a handful of House Democrats who voted to defend the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel and voted against an immigration bill that boosted funding for border policing and did not adequately protect detainees. This year, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement demands, she has advocated the defunding of the police and supported the dismantlement of the Minneapolis Police Department.

The future of the American Left

The lack of criticism of the Democrats in the book is concerning because it is indicative of broader strategic shortcomings within the left-wing electoral movement that has accompanied the Bernie Sanders campaign since 2016. Transformative in policy, class conscious in rhetoric, diverse in leadership and grassroots in orientation, the progressive wave that Omar is a part of has opened up opportunities for the US Left that we have not seen in generations.

Yet, they remain fundamentally loyal to the Democratic Party. The Sanders campaign is now stumping for Biden and de-emphasising their policy disagreements in the interest of unity against Trump. Meanwhile, the moderate Democratic leadership, once divided and disoriented, has consolidated its grip on the party - a hold that will only be strengthened by a strong win for Biden next month. Once in office, they will seek to limit reforms and debates to those palatable to their Wall Street donors and look to popular progressive figures like Omar to help do the selling job to a base that expects more fundamental change.

To avoid such co-optation, Omar and other genuinely progressive politicians must remain explicit in their criticisms of the Democratic Party, deepen their links to grassroots struggles that can support their legislative challenges to Party leadership, and engage in discussions with the radical Left about the capitalist nature of the Party and why and how an independent alternative to it should be built.

Our side needs uncompromising fighters like Ilhan Omar, but this won’t be enough to weather upcoming storms. We need the right strategy too - one that brings all the fighters of our side together to break through the elitist two-party stranglehold on American politics.

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